Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Do You Trust This City?

Tomorrow night (Thursday, April 12) the City of Alexandria will hold the final public meeting on the draft Braddock Road Metro small area plan. The session will get underway at 7 PM at Jefferson-Houston School at 1501 Cameron Street.

It's hard to predict what will happen. A few optimists believe that staff may come back with revisions to the plan, though probably not anything substantial. There indeed might the possibility of good news: that a new grocer has signed on for the Madison, that the retail space at the Monarch has been leased, and that the City and ARHA have forged an agreement to move a substantial amount of public housing out of our neighborhood.

That could happen. It doesn't seem likely, however, that everything turned around in just three weeks.

The postponement following the contentious March 20 meeting was probably directed by politicians (working through staff), who wanted to give the plan's supporters time to rally. That's undoubtedly the reason the ICCA meeting was canceled: low attendance has never fazed them in the past.

In the end, most participants tomorrow night will speak on behalf of their own interests and concerns and whether the draft plan connects with their desires and needs. That's all part of the democratic process.

But the Growler would like to break through cliche for a moment and focus on what support or opposition to the plan betokens.

It is based to a large degree on the viewer's sense of trust in the City of Alexandria — both permanent staff and elected officials. The plan is just a plan. It's a blueprint and a roadmap. It's not a concrete fait accompli that people can immediately grasp and react for or against.

It is a set of promises. And the fundamental issue is whether you as a voter, resident and taxpayer believe that the Alexandria's bureaucracy and politicians will keep the promises that the plan indicates: that they can pour huge density around Braddock Road Metro and prevent adverse traffic impacts while successfully moving residents to mass transit. Can you believe that they can attract high-quality retail and make this community "vibrant," even as they are struggling to fill Carlyle? Can you be sure that they will eventually disperse a meaningful amount of public housing to other sites and reduce crime permanently.

Trust is really where the line is drawn. Some of the most ardent supporters of the plan are new to the political process and view the City as a quasi-paternalistic, benevolent force. These neighbors believe the City will live up to its commitments and will continue to honor past victories wrung from politicians by the community in former times.

Unfortunately, many of these individuals have not been here long enough to see the whole cycle and to understand that with revolving doors for politicians as well as senior staff there is little or no institutional memory left to honor past agreements.

Many of the people opposed to the plan are those who have seen the City at work over the years and have little or no faith in promises. There's solid ground for these residents' skepticism. This, after all, is the City of Alexandria, which took people's homes and yards by eminent domain to build Metro and expand Route 1, whose police have had been loathe for generations to eradict crime and protect citizens, which "lost" Parker-Gray's historic district paperwork for 16 years?

This is the City of Alexandria, which let its budget balloon with the housing boom while letting jobs slip away. It's the City which let our only regional mall at Landmark lose 75% of its assessed value. It's a City which is trying to define itself by shipping tourists from Maryland's National Harbor and spending half a million dollars to run buses to lure PTO employees down to the half-empty restaurants on King Street. It's the City of Alexandria that never made Braddock Place work, even after the Meridian and the nearby condos were built a few years ago.

So let the Growler pose this question: do you trust the City of Alexandria? Do you trust Mayor Euille and the City Council? Do you trust City Manager Jim Hartmann, Rich Josephson and Jeff Farner of P&Z, Rich Baier of T&ES, or the staff and board of ARHA?